The Double Cheeseburger at Au Cheval: “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Au Cheval cheeseburger

“Hi, there’s three of us. What’s the wait?”

“It’ll be three to three-and-a-half hours.”

“Three to three-and-a-half hours.”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

I’d never been to Chicago, which is appalling, I realize. But as an East Coast native who has driven through Chicago no less than seven times in the twelve or so years I’ve considered Minnesota my home, Chicago appears more a shitstain on my journey than a lovely place to visit. Driving through Illinois is a mess of randomly-placed tollbooths, and the city proper is a parking lot masquerading as an interstate highway.

But as my culinary indulgences get the best of me, and with multiple trips to other cities awakening a desire to seek out not only the best the Twin Cities have to offer, but the rest of the damn world, the closest gourmand-baiting destination became increasingly appealing.

Outside of my obvious predeliction, I like eating a variety of things, and I wasn’t about to treat Chicago like the burger-slinging conveyor belt I continue to consider New York. Again: it’s my first time there, and I’d like to take a nice cross-section of what the greater Chicagoland area has to offer. Big Star for tacos, Parson’s Chicken & Fish because fried chicken, Berkshire Room for fancy cocktails, Lost Lake for tiki drinks, MingHin for Dim Sum, Fat Rice for spirit-awakening Macanese, Lem’s for barbecue, Portillo’s for hotdogs and Italian beef sandwiches, Isla Pilipina for Filipino. The Museum of Science and Industry had us running around like little kids, amongst little kids. For you “readers” out there, Myopic Books might be my favorite bookstore in the country. (And, yes, I’ve been to Powell’s. Also, I said “might be”.)

I did many things on this trip, but it all happened for a burger. One burger, in particular, is what pushed me over the edge onto the “gotta go” side of the fence. I went to Chicago to eat the Au Cheval cheeseburger.

Au Cheval opened in 2012 in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, from star restauranteur Brendan Sodikoff. The room is an extremely sexy bistro-pub overlaid on a diner, featuring an open kitchen with bar-hight (rather than diner-height) seating. They fancy themselves “diner-style with European Influences”, with eggy breakfast items available all day, a house-made bologna sandwich, fried chicken, and matzo ball soup, alongside a foie gras terrine and bone marrow. They have a full bar and their cocktail list cites the sources of their takes on classic cocktails, alongside a few originals.

But the wait. The burger’s been a hit here since they opened, but Bon Appetit really tore the lid off, and the people came flocking to the no reservation 50-seater. This is why I had to eat here, why I was willing to wait. I’ve never heard of such wait times, and damn near everyone was just there for the burger. We downloaded an app that showed 45 parties in front of us whittle down to 4 from a bar across the street before we got the call. Then we closed out our tab and ran to Au Cheval.

Au Cheval presentation

The burger comes as a single (two patties) or a double (three patties), with two slices of American cheese, diced red onions, and homemade dijonnaise on a toasted locally-made bun. And, of course, you can add bacon (I did) or get it with a fried egg (I also did). The thing’s simply beautiful. It’s everything I already love in a burger, and a few touches I don’t typically go for that worked marvelously. First and foremost, the sear is as perfect as one can achieve with a flattop (The best sears I’ve had came from a cast iron skillet, which is inefficient if everyone is ordering a burger). Au Cheval cranks their griddle up to 500 degrees, and gets an awesome near-crust while cooking to a perfect warm, moist, pink medium. The American cheese coalesced the three patties into a monolith of cheese and beef. And though I was initially dubious of the lack of a third slice of cheese, leaving it off pushed the cheese-beef ratio into an equilibrium that really makes the beef stand out among the other wonderful things going on. I was thrown off by the dijonnaise. I’ve panned burgers for their inclusion of mustard, which is too strong of a condiment in the presence of beef. But in this case, it served more to season the mayo than play a dominant role. Diced onion for a crisp, biting sweetness, and house-made pickles provided those acid high notes to really round out the experience. The bacon is amazing, thick, and black peppery; crispy outside, chewy inside. Just good-ass bacon that’s thick enough to make sure you can taste it, providing a lovely harmony to the beef’s melody.

“Au Cheval” literally translates to “on horseback” but culinarily means “with egg”. Confession time: I don’t love an egg on my burger. I’ll take one if it’s what the chef intends, but I genuinely dislike a crispy fried egg on my burger. It’s texturally incorrect and difficult to bite through so it slides around and ruins the structural integrity, making a mess of everything. And after ordering the egg, I considered hailing down our server and taking it back, but I’m glad I stuck to my rash decision, because the egg was wonderful. Not crispy. Fried, yes, runny yolk, yes, white completely set, but without an iota of crispiness, to a bewildering extent. It was a textural feat that added both yolky sauciness and a wonderful velvety white that’s exactly what I want in an egg on a burger.

Au Cheval cross section

Upon first picking up the burger, I was dismayed by the heft of the bun. I’m into squishy buns, and if your bun does anything besides flatten and hold everything together, I don’t fuck with you. But the bun from local bakery Z baking masters both tasks. Midway through, the bun was as flat as it should be, but that density I detected initially did the literal heavy lifting here, holding the entire experience together, only succumbing to my teeth. The real beauty behind this masterpiece of a burger is how perfectly it held together the whole time I was eating it. No component fell out of step, ensuring that just about every bite tasted as fucking delicious as the last. It isn’t something I’ve ever asked for, and finishing a burger with sauce and grease all over my hands and toppings on the paper-lined basket, belly full, is part of the Great American Experience. But this “clean” experience was unexpected and fantastic. From the patties themselves to the diced onion, the thing’s designed to hold form until you bite it. Don’t get me wrong: this thing’s greasy and cheesy and yolky and saucy as all hell, as my plate full of grease drippings will attest. But the structure is sound.

In the end, what matters most is whether or not the burger works, and this guy’s making overtime. Squishy bun, tasty pickles, diced onions, really good bacon…all things I love. Dijonnaise and a fried egg aren’t choices I’d make, but I’m really glad Au Cheval made them. But it’s all there to support expertly executed beef patties with American cheese. Everything is tuned and balanced to make a really damn tasty burger.

As I’ll explain time and time again, there’s no such thing as a perfect burger. But in my journey to eat all the fucking burgers, I’ve rarely come across one that comes so close. Shake shack, in its mass-produced masterpieces, Revival in its refined craft, Brindle Room, Haute dish, Parlour, Saint Dinette…all places I turn to for their absolute understanding of what a burger can and should be, in their own interpretation of my most preferred food item. Au Cheval has skillfully earned their place on this list.

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The Whopperito at Burger King: “Que Onda Guero?”

BK Whopperito/Whopper

I’m trying to take this seriously, but this entry pretty much writes itself.

When I was in college, my friends and I would look at the website This is Why You’re Fat, which post pictures of all things bacon-wrapped and cheese-stuffed; excessively decadent food monstrosities that people would make and submit pictures. While being interviewed on the podcast Lea and the Internet, I recalled the website and we noted that most of its current posts are no longer homemade concoctions, but readily available for purchase, which demonstrates a general shift in our culture toward over-the-top Instagrammable food excesses.

Burger King has been embracing this food trend, producing the Mac ‘n Cheetos, the Cheetos Chicken Fries they introduced just this week, and the Whopperito: a hybrid between their Whopper cheeseburger and a burrito. As an established fan of the Whopper, I optimistically anticipated the Whopperito to simply be a Whopper in a tortilla.

Which would have been good. If that’s what they’d done.

BK Whopperito

Who taught them how to wrap burritos?

I want to tell you it was simply disgusting, but it mostly just doesn’t work. To their credit, there’s plenty of beef in it, but it’s beef that’s been ruined. They start with their chargrilled burger patties, which is a very good place to start, because they’re central to the BK taste. They hack ’em into chunks and then immediately take a nosedive by adding some kind of Tex-Mex sauce. It makes it taste like Wendy’s chili — which I should note I also really like — but WHY DID THEY DO THAT? They cover up most of that Flame Grilled™ flavor. Is the Whopper not good enough? They have a good thing going here, and they’re using the Whopper name in vain because they clearly don’t have faith in their own top-selling product. BK Whopperito cross sectionThey wrap it up — poorly — in a tortilla with sliced tomatoes, diced onions, pickles, and iceberg lettuce. It’s all clearly pulled directly from the same bins they use to make burgers so they wouldn’t need, like, twenty ingredients on the line for one stupid hype beast, but they all just taste fucking bizarre, texturally. Diced tomatoes in a burrito, people. Standard burger pickles are out of place in this Tex-Mex wasteland. Jalapeños are an obvious choice in the bastardization they’ve created, but I’d probably be bitching about them, too, in this heathenistic abomination. And then there’s some kind of queso sauce that tastes more of the plasticine movie theater nacho cheese than the American cheese that’s a burger’s best friend, just in case you thought all processed cheeses were created equal. And it was painfully missing the mayo and ketchup that round out the Whopper flavor. But I guess that’s what the Tex-Mex sauce and plastic cheese are there for: to make you wish there was mayo and ketchup on it. And American cheese. And a bun. And it was an actual Whopper.

In the end, it’s much more a product of our culture than a strong attempt at making a tasty burrito. They either should have directly translated the Whopper to a burrito, literally swapping out the bun for a tortilla, or gone all the way making a Tex-Mex burger-burrito, with sour cream, jalapeños, and all the Tex-Mex sauce and queso their little hearts desire. They appear to have been going for the easiest way to execute a zany food item without interrupting their usual operation. At $2.99, I’d rather pay $4.99 for the Whopper with cheese that I also ate for unneeded comparison, and to wash the taste out of my mouth as the King intended.

The Double Hi-Lo Burger: “To the Windows, to the Walls”

Hi-Lo Plated

We didn’t have to wait too long for a table for the eight of us, but it could have been a lot worse. They were clearly coming down from an insane Labor Day rush, and when our party-last-night revelers rolled in at 1:30pm there was no one loitering outside the Hi-Lo Diner, as is a typical sight for a Sunday brunch service. Smaller parties came and went within minutes while we waited for a patio table large enough to fit all of us–their inside booths would fit a snug six, max. After thirty minutes hungrily half-seriously making alternate brunch plans we were sitting around a picnic table, poring over their very sexy drink menu.

Hi-Lo is a collaboration between the proprietors of local home design goods gurus, Forage Modern Workshop across the street and the blucy maestros at Blue Door Pub whose Longfellow location is a few blocks away. So it looks incredible and runs like a tight ship. The dining room is an actual prefabricated diner from 1957 they found and shipped to Minneapolis to install on the front of an old Taco Bell. They moved the cooking space behind the scenes while the tradition open kitchen (from before that was a thing) was transformed into a full bar with cocktails designed by top-notch barman & Tattersall mastermind Dan Oskey. Helming the kitchen is Heidi Marsh, formerly of the Chillkoot Cafe in Stillwater, MN and the Aster Cafe.

The drinks are playful, both in name and flavor. The Fjord Fiesta is an unexpected harmony of clashing flavors, featuring Tattersall Aquavit, Cocchi Americano, Blue Curacao, served Tiki-style over crushed ice. The Oaxacan in Memphis is a deep, smoky Tennessee Whiskey-Mezcal cocktail with a nose of herbs from a thyme tincture and a rosemary sprig garnish. The drink menu features an entire section of ice cream drinks, made with Sebastian Joe’s vanilla. I tried the Periscope Down, which blends Fernet Branca, root beer, and cold press with ice cream, and it was a smooth, tasty, spiced-not-spicy mishmash of some of my favorite flavors. The cocktail list is reason enough to make a return visit, but so is the food.

Hi-Lo Gary Cooper'd

The Gary Cooper’d Hi-Top, and the Periscope Down Ice Cream Cocktail

They’re making really great scratch diner fare, with an extensive breakfast selection, classic entrees, sandwiches and Hi-Lo’s original concept signature item, the Hi-Top. It’s kind of like a doughnut, but not really. There’s no hole, it’s not as sweet, and a bit more dense than–well–than the kind of doughnuts I like. They’re fried to order then topped with a variety of things like short ribs and apple bacon slaw, pulled pork and black bean sweet corn salsa, or a duck confit benedict-style arrangement. I got the Gary Cooper’d: fried chicken strips and country gravy with maple-bourbon syrup, and it balances the sweet, the savory, the crispy, the creamy, and tops them with arugula microgreens for a pop of freshness. It’s a fantastic dish, and the Hi-Tops alone are reason to come back. But also: the burger.

Hi-Lo Cross SectionI’ve been getting tired of the smashed patty with American cheese schtick. It’s great, but everybody’s doing it, and lately I’ve been more drawn to pub-style thick-ass patties cooked medium rare. When I heard Hi-Lo was taking the smash route, I rolled my eyes. To their credit, given their concept, they pretty much had to, but it was right when I was getting sick of ’em. So it took me kind of a while to make it to Hi-Lo to check on their offering, and damned if I didn’t instantly fall back off the anti-smash wagon. Their secret sauce is standard fare secret sauce, which is great–I love it. Their “Hi-Lo pickles” are not-sickly-sweet bread-and-butter -like pickled cucumbers. The beef had something else to it I couldn’t place. It was seasoned with something fragrant I really liked, but will most likely keep me guessing on future visits, but otherwise it’s a truly fantastically balanced beef flavor. But the saltiness was perfect, and the sear was a textbook-perfect smash, with just a hint of pink in the center. Gobs of American cheese were fantastically creamy. The bread–from Turtle Bread Co.–is pretty much what I look for in a burger bun: squishy but holds up. Overall, it’s a well-balanced beef-forward burger. You can get it in a single or a double, and I’d highly recommend the double, as it really highlights the beefiness–I had the single on a previous visit and while it was good, there’s something about doubling the surface area that amplifies the flavor.

The Hi-Lo Diner has infiltrated my list of places-I-like-a-lot-but-don’t-live-close-enough-to-be-a-regular-at-but-will-make-an-effort-to-visit-on-occasion-that-are-reasonably-priced. They get bonus points for being open late enough for me to eat after work, for consolidating diner food and cocktails, and for Hi-Tops, which are inspired and delicious. And, dammit, I really like that burger.

 

The Cubana “Frita” Burger at Victor’s 1959 Cafe: “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx”

Victor's Fritas BurgerVictor’s is my favorite brunch spot in town. Hands down. It’s my go-to place to bring out-of-towners, my go-to for a simple satisfying weekday solo brunch, and my occasional weekend worth-the-wait hangover brunch. I can’t get around how much I love going to Victor’s for brunch, and I love going out for brunch.

But I just love it so damn much it’s the only thing I’ve gotten there. I haven’t even had their Cuban sandwich! I don’t even know if I’d properly looked at the rest of the menu, until this exchange on twitter:

So, basically, I have to now, right? Struggle is real, folks.

A quick bit of research tells me a “Frita Cubana” is a burger with origins in Cuba popular in southern Florida, consisting of a beef and pork patty topped with shoestring potatoes. Victor’s variation omits the taters and adds chorizo to the meat blend, served on a potato roll.

Victor's cross section

Due to the pork and chorizo, the patty’s safely cooked throughout, but to the peak of doneness where it’s wonderfully tender and juicy with an awesome sear. The chorizo really shines, wonderfully spiced, full of flavor, but not at all spicy. I’m always wary of greens that aren’t iceberg lettuce, but the mesclun Victor’s uses wilts just slightly in contact with the warm patty, and paired with the grilled onion and tomato, gives it a touch of familiarity amid the wild-child patty. The potato bun–the first, I should note, that I’ve encountered in Minnesota since discovering the sheer ubiquity of the Martin’s Potato Roll in NYC–has that essential squish, hardly any flavor, and gracefully performs its #1 job of carrying the burger. I wasn’t sure if the ramekin of the house creole sauce was meant for the burger or the accompanying black beans and rice. It certainly didn’t need sauce–the patty did a fantastic job being the primary flavor component–but adding a dollop on the burger gave it an extra zip, a slight acid, a hint more moisture, and really brought this burger home for me.

One of my goals with Burger Fetish is to get out there and try new places, but sometimes new “places” are entire sections of the menu I haven’t explored yet at some of my absolute favorites. I’ve been loving Victor’s for all 10 years I’ve been living in Minneapolis, and I’m totally kicking myself right now for not enjoying all of Victor’s. After the burger, sitting at the bar sipping coffee, feeling not full but totally satisfied, I watched the servers who seemed to genuinely love their job flutter about bopping to lively Latin tunes, and thought to myself, “I’m really happy. I need to come here more often.”

The Nightingale Burger: “I feel so cold and I long for your embrace”

Nightingale Burger

I don’t have a car. I mostly bike, but in the winter I bus. Which usually works fine, but every few years there’s a snow storm so fucked that even Minnesota gives up, and goes to bed early to shovel in the morning. I, of course, had this past Tuesday off and wild, outlandish plans to go far and away to get a burger, having been chastised by my housemate Dane on nary venturing outside of South Minneapolis. But then the storm.

Luckily, there’s a tasty burger I’ve been saving for an emergency. It’s by no means inferior, and this situation perfectly illustrates my relationship with this establishment: it’s getting late, I’m hungry, and I want an actual real-deal tasty fucking meal within four blocks from my house. Nightingale is the best chef-driven restaurant in my neighborhood that serves its full menu until 1am.

Chef-owner Carrie McCabe-Johnson earned her stripes working for Alex Roberts at Alma and Brassa before opening Nightingale with her husband Jasha Johnson in 2012, in the former location of a bodega that had the best damn gyros in town. I was actually kind of spiteful about the loss of the gyros (seriously) and avoided Nightingale for a while, but when I finally came around there was some definite serious self-kicking. They do a lot of small plates, which is the way I love to eat (a burger is a small plate). Their menu is super comfortable–nothing outlandish, mostly standards, but done very, very well. I rarely leave the place without sucking down a few oysters.

Madeleine and I met up in the mid-afternoon to get ice cream at the already consistently incredible Milkjam Creamery when we realized we could easily dip on over to Nightingale and rescue my storm-ruined burger plans, because after ice cream is totally when you should eat a burger. As an added bonus we hit their afternoon happy hour, where the burger is discounted (it isn’t on the late night happy hour).

Nightingale cross section

First I should mention that halfway through, we both realized we’d been given the wrong burgers–I go med-rare, and Madeleine gets medium–and that it was too late to switch, but she gave me her pink middle bites, and they were lovely and silky and everything I want in a burger, but I was somewhat disappointed with my medium-cooked patty. It could definitely have used a bit deeper of a sear, but the seasoning was good, and complemented by the aged cheddar. The tomato was forgettable and romaine gave a good crunch, but the main attraction is the decadence of the brioche bun and the herb aioli. The homemade bun did the seemingly impossible task of hitting that essential squishiness with a just noticeable chew, but was also supremely buttery. Butter’s baked in and spread on before toasting. The aioli is awesomely fragrant, and did an excellent job of highlighting the herbs while the oil carried the flavors forward. Together, they were reminiscent of focaccia, in all of its herby-oily goodness, and really presented the gourmet quality of this burger. I tried a couple of pickle slices on the burger but they got lost amongst the other flavors and were better off on the side. Besides the doneness mishap, my only downside is that the beef isn’t as dominant a flavor. A thicker, bistro-style burger would push the decadence through the roof and tweak the balance just enough to make this excellent burger legendary. It would certainly justify a couple bucks over its $13 price tag ($9 on happy hour).

The fries are excellently crispy, skin-on, and served with a magically delicious malt vinegar aioli.

Nightingale is a spot I already irregularly infrequent, and I’m sure this burger will find its way down my gullet time and time again. On top of their excellent bar program, they have Hamms on tap, and if you make it to their afternoon happy hour (4-6pm), you can add a pint of Hamms to your burger for a buck. A buck.

The McGangbang at McDonald’s: “Control yourself, take only what you need from it”

McGangbang cross sectionUp until this point, the concept of “Burger Porn” has rested cheekily in the realm of tasteful erotica, presenting images of oozy cheese and juicy patties, but easily staying PG-13. Titillating? Sure. Mouth-watering? Obviously. Tongue-in-cheek, grain-of-salt guiltless fun. But I haven’t reached full-on smut.

I need to do something about that.

Immediately after eating the Big Mac-inspired cheeseburger at Scena Tavern, the only obvious place to go was literally across the street to the McDonalds for a Big Mac. On my way in, however, I came across the “McPick 2” deal, and remembered something bigger, and bolder than a Big Mac for half the price, and a vile grin spread across my face.

“Fuck the Big Mac,” I told my companions. “I’m getting a McGangbang*.”

This is the post I don’t want my mother to see. Hi, Mom.

Secret menus are a simple way to get the most out of your favorite fast food restaurant by taking ingredients they already have to turn their regular menu items into unique masterpieces. Some are so ubiquitous they get their own names. The “Quesarito“, for instance, is a Chipotle burrito on a quesadilla in stead of a boring tortilla. The secret menu is so well known at In-N-Out Burger, that they list some of the most popular menu variations on their website. Did you know you can swap in grilled onions on any McDonald’s sandwich at no extra charge? Now you do.

Its origin is unclear, but the McGangbang first appeared on the internet in 2006 and gained popularity in 2008. The premise is simple: you take one McChicken and put it in the middle of a McDouble. I’d never had one before. Feeling extra frisky, I ordered both sandwiches with extra Special Sauce. I meant in stead of the ketchup and mustard on the McDouble and the mayo on the McChicken but didn’t make this clear and got charged for the sauce, but this was fine. Very, very fine.

I pulled up to a table and unwrapped both sandwiches. The McDouble I peeled apart at the cheese, right between the two patties, and laid the McChicken–in full–on the bottom half, and replaced the top half of the burger on top. Voila.

McDonald's McGangbang

The sear’s weak, the seasoning’s good, not enough cheese, essential bun-squish, nice crunch on the chicken, kind of a fantastic amount of total sauce, to be honest, a bit of crisp from the lettuce, nice acid from the pickles, zip from the special sauce, but mostly it tasted like McDonald’s, which is exactly what it needed to taste like. This sandwich is so elemental it’s ridiculous. It’s a literal mashup of two of the most iconic sandwiches in the world, and that’s exactly what it fucking tastes like, and I’m totally extremely happily “Loving It” for all of the chemicals, additives, preservatives, GMOs, and passive voice that go along with that trademarked phrase.

Nostalgia-wise, McDonalds is my ultimate platonic ideal of a cheeseburger, for the simple fact that I can walk into any McDonalds in the entire world and it’ll taste exactly how it’s supposed to, every single time. You cannot fake that. It’s what they do best. They drilled the concept into me via shitty toys, and I shall continue to drink that Kool-Aid so long as I shall live. I’ve eaten far superior burgers than McDonalds, but when I get that specific itch, there’s only one scratch for it.

Right now, Mom’s regretting every Happy Meal she ever bought me.

Each sandwich was $1 and the extra sauce was $.25 each, for a total of $2.50. A Big Mac is $3.99. Math.

I don’t think I’ve eaten at McDonald’s since Burger Fetish started, but I really liked this carnival sideshow act because I really like McDonalds. I’m not going to recommend it–you either want one or you don’t–and while reading this might be fun, I don’t think I’ve swayed anyone in either direction. No one’s taking another chance on McDonald’s after reading this either; you’ve made your mind up on the restaurant before you started reading this. So what am I doing here? Why’d I write this? Why’d I eat a McGangbang?

Because I eat fucking burgers and talk about them. This is my life.


*A word on the awkward name, just in case. A “gangbang” is a group performing sex acts on one consenting person, simultaneously or in turn. Not to be confused with an orgy in which a group of participants engages freely in sexual acts with one another. My consumption of a sandwich named after this act is neither endorsement nor disapproval; what consenting adults do with a group of other consenting adults is their business. “Gang rape” is a nonconsensual act that’s absolutely wrong, should never be done, is never funny, and I’d never eat a sandwich named after it. Clear? Good.

 

Matt’s Bar vs. The 5-8 Club: “Two households, alike in dignity”

Matt's vs. 5-8 header

Matt’s Bar (l), the 5-8 Club (r)

After my whirlwind trip to New York, the best way to come home and kick off the 2016 season (season? sure) of Burger Fetish is with the biggest Minneapolis burger question of them all.

There’s no Minneapolis food item more iconic than the Juicy Lucy*, and no greater rivalry than that between Matt’s Bar and the 5-8 Club. Both bars claim invention of the cheese-stuffed burger, but every Minneapolite has an opinion on which Lucy is best. Luckily, I am a Minneapolite, full of both opinions and, at the moment, a lot of beef and cheese.

I’ve never actually been to the 5-8 Club, having accepted on hearsay that Matt’s Jucy Lucy was the better. I recruited my favorite native Southsider, Kyle, to join me, partly because he’s the only person I know who prefers the 5-8 Lucy, partly because he loves burgers enough to go eat two of them with me, and partly because he’s one of my best buds in the whole wide world. AWWWWWWW. Shut up.

According to legend, soon after Matt’s Bar opened in 1954, a customer asked proprietor Matt Bristol to make two patties with cheese in the middle, causing him to declare, “that’s one juicy lucy!” and a sensation was born. The 5-8 Club opened in 1928 as a speakeasy and went legit following the repeal of prohibition. Originally called the 58th St. Club, patrons began referring to it as the 5-8 and eventually the name stuck. It has no cute origin story for its Juicy Lucy, but say they invented it “in the 1950’s,” which sounds dubious, but I’m not here to quibble on undocumented history.

5-8 Club cross sectionAt the 5-8, you can get your Lucy stuffed with American, blue, Swiss, or pepperjack. I, obviously, went American. I misunderstood the server’s question and ordered mine without fried onions, which I’ll admit is a misstep, especially when it comes to a fair comparison. Otherwise, the only topping was pickles on a notably less-than-squishy bun. The patty arrived relatively medium-well, still pretty juicy with basically no sear, but well-seasoned. This leads me to believe they don’t keep their griddle cranked the fuck up like most burger joints. Lucys are traditionally cooked through to ensure the cheese melts thoroughly, and keeping the griddle at a more moderate temperature makes sure the meat doesn’t dry out, which I respect, but as I learned in New York at Whitman’s, this isn’t actually necessary. They stuff an incredible stack of three slices of cheese between two quarter-pound patties, and it came out looking like a beef patty that got pregnant. The solid quantity delivers an awesome mouthful of meat and a grip of cheese in every bite. They season their grill daily with bacon and onions, and despite my embarrassing omission, there was a definite subtle oniony taste to it reminiscent of a White Mana slider. I squirted some ketchup on the side for strategically acrobatic–so as not to spill that precious cheese–dipping, and I was pretty damn impressed with what I’d heard was the lesser Lucy.

Then on to Matt’s.

First of all, vibe-wise, Matt’s was on point. It’s a total dive, as opposed to the 5-8’s updated family restaurant, near-Applebees feel. Everything from the music to the attitude of the servers just screamed we-care-but-only-barely. You walk in and know where you are, and I frankly felt at home. I’m a dive bar dude.

Matt's cross section

The Jucy Lucy, on the other hand, could use some work. They pride themselves on having a griddle seasoned with over 60 years of Lucys and onions, but it mostly gave it an overcharred taste with added bitter notes of burgers past. The onions completely overwhelm the patty, which is not something I typically frown upon, but it was too much. And the pickles were weirdly overpowering. Not so much sour, they were over-seasoned, and they had way too much influence on the overall taste of the burger so I took them off, which is an enormous deal for a pickle fiend like me. Most egregiously, Matt’s puts a single slice of cheese between two 3oz. patties, which is not an awesome amount of cheese to have with six ounces of meat. The sear was wonderful, and the patty was seasoned respectably, the bun perfectly squished itself to the meat, but it plainly just wanted more cheese. I could respect the ratio if the meat was better and cooked less well, but for fairly standard well-done beef, you need to get fucked in the face with cheese.

In the end the 5-8 Juicy Lucy wins for me, on the basis of cheese. If you’re literally putting cheese at the heart of your burger, it needs to be amazing, and Matt’s American turns to a hot cheese grease that mostly just burns your mouth. The 5-8’s cheese-beef ratio has too much cheese, which is actually just enough, and it stays gooey and flavorful.

Again, I don’t do rankings and I don’t do ratings, but the next time someone asks which Juicy Lucy is better, I’ll tell them the 5-8. Then I’ll send them to the Blue Door for what I consider the best Juicy Lucy in town. Both bars stick to  methods that might have been novel in the 1950’s, and good on them for keeping people interested for 60 years, but burgers have gotten better since then. The rivalry will never go away, die-hard adherents will maintain their allegiances, but I’m honored to add fuel to this ongoing fire.


*A word on spelling, because it matters. The 5-8 Club calls it a “Juicy Lucy”. Due to a spelling error they decided to run with, Matt’s calls it a “Jucy Lucy.” Because writer [sic], I consider “Juicy Lucy” to be the “correct” spelling of the category of cheese-stuffed burgers, but a restaurant can name their burger anything they want; at the Nook, it’s a “Juicy Nookie”, and at the Blue Door it’s a “Blucy“. I will use appropriate spelling when discussing each bar, but use “Juicy Lucy” in reference to all cheese-stuffed burgers, without specific allegiance to either Juicy Lucy**.

**See what I did there?